Beloved tenor remembered

Philadelphia offers museum, institute honoring memory of Mario Lanza

Short Hop

March 14, 2004|By Roberta Sandler | Roberta Sandler,Special to the Sun

One afternoon in 1959, I came home from high school to find my mother in tears.

"I have bad news," she said. "Mario Lanza died today."

I, too, burst into tears, mourning the end of the golden voice that had made Mario Lanza's movies so popular and that had crowned him as the Enrico Caruso of the 1950s. When he died in Rome, he was 38 years old.

Flash forward to several months ago. I made my first visit to Philadelphia. There, I discovered not only the Mario Lanza Museum, but also the Mario Lanza Institute, Mario Lanza Park, Mario Lanza mural and Mario Lanza's birthplace.

It just so happens that this year is the 45th anniversary of the singer's death. Even all these years later, the tenor described by Arturo Toscanini as "the greatest voice of the 20th century," remains an icon in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up. Lanza wanted to help aspiring opera students, a dream that became a posthumous reality in 1962 when the Mario Lanza Institute was founded to provide scholarships to classical vocal students.

To date, the institute has bestowed more than 200 scholarships to the winners of its annual vocal competition. Recipients are announced at the annual Mario Lanza Ball. The Mario Lanza Museum emerged as an offshoot of the institute.

The museum and institute are located in Columbus House, a 19th-century, two-story stone building at 712 Montrose St. that first served as the rectory for the church next door, St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi parish, and later became an Italian-American cultural center.

"Our purpose is to provide a place where people can come and learn about the man and the artist," says Bill Ronayne, the museum's volunteer publicity director. Ronayne isn't the typical Lanza fan. He was born in 1959, the year Lanza died. As an adult, he discovered Lanza's records, and he's been hooked ever since.

The museum's exhibits flow chronologically. Two rooms with hardwood floors and bright lighting serve as galleries that offer a retrospective of Lanza's life and career, from his youth in Philadelphia to his rise to stardom.

Photos, newspapers, letters, costumes and memorabilia chronicle Lanza's short career, which took off after the release of his song "Be My Love" and the 1951 movie The Great Caruso.

Cassettes of Lanza's recordings are for sale, and his songs play in the background, filling the museum with sweet melodies. There are posters from The Great Caruso and the six other movies in which he appeared. There are photos of Lanza with Betty, his wife of 14 years, and their four children. His wife died six months after his death. A bust of the singer, which sits on a wooden pedestal at the museum, was made by a Hungarian sculptor and presented to Lanza's mother, Maria, in 1967. She gave it to the institute along with her wish that someday it would be displayed in a museum.

Expressive singer

Mary Papola, president of the museum, gives guided tours to about 100 visitors each week. They come from all over the world. Jeanette Frese, a museum volunteer, thinks she knows why the tenor's popularity continues.

"Lanza's voice was robust," she says. "It had bottom to it. It's the timbre that just catches you and makes you listen."

Marlene D'Attanasio, who lives in Toronto, visited the museum after learning about it on the Internet. And each year, she attends the Mario Lanza Ball.

"Watch Mario's hands while he's singing in his movies," she says. "He almost sculpts the songs. His hands are so expressive. As a child, I remember seeing his movies on TV. They made me feel good, and I thought he was gorgeous."

Linda Drake, 53, who lives in Chicago, visited the museum after she bought a CD featuring the voices of Lanza and other tenors.

"His voice is magical, and his face and presence are mystifying," Drake says. "If he comes across this way in his music and his films, what would it have been like to actually see him perform live?"

St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi parish is a stunning Renaissance-style stone church dating to 1891. This was America's first national Italian parish, and Lanza was an altar boy here, where he first sang "Ave Maria."

The Mario Lanza mural, 45 feet high and 30 feet wide, is at Broad and Reed streets. Local artist Diane Keller and members of the city's Mural Arts Program painted it.

The mural shows Lanza as characters from some of his movies and as himself. A painted blue ribbon flowing through the scenes is imprinted with the names of those who contributed $500 or more to the mural fund.

Boyhood haunts

Mario Lanza Park, at 214 Catharine St., is shaded by red oak and London plane trees. Banners with Lanza's likeness wave from the lampposts.

Surrounded by benches, flower beds and large clay flowerpots, a plaque on a brick podium declares that the park was built "in memory of the great Philadelphia tenor." An area of the park, enclosed with wrought iron fencing, is set aside as a dog park.

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